Monday, June 20, 2011

Guess What, Seniors? The AARP Just Threw You Under the Bus

In talking with others, I often find myself in the unenviable position of trying to convince them that some large institution they think is working on their behalf is actually their enemy. For example, liberals get all defensive when I point out that on issues of real importance regarding the economy and foreign policy, President Obama is no different from the hated Bush. A Tea Partier, on the other hand, might get testy when it is demonstrated that big corporations benefit far more from government largess than do Medicaid and welfare recipients and that Republicans are the biggest defenders of corporate subsidies. Though it rarely sinks in, I try to warn people that when it comes to dealing with any large institution these days, be it corporate, governmental, religious or even charitable, the mantra of the little person should always be: Trust No One.

And that brings me to the breathtaking announcement last Friday by the American Association of Retired Persons, supposedly the preeminent lobbying entity for the nation’s senior citizens, that it would concede to allow cuts in Social Security benefits. This move comes after the AARP basically sat around watching pretty birdies fly by during the past two years as Congress and the Obama Administration curtailed the annual cost of living increases for beneficiaries. The organization also remained mute when the tax deal Obama and the Republicans struck in December slashed Social Security taxes, thereby ensuring that the program’s ultimate day of financial reckoning would come sooner rather than later. So much for what we’ve always heard, that Social Security is allegedly the “third rail of American Politics.”

Please understand, I don’t want to get into an argument about Social Security’s long-term viability or whether the program is broke. It is true that the so-called Social Security “trust fund” is actually loaded up with Treasury securities—in other words government debt that can only be redeemed by increasing the deficit—and it is also true that the program faces a long term revenue shortfall amounting to many trillions of dollars. That is not the focus of this piece. No, what is really more telling in this story is how yet another large American institution that vacuums up millions of dollars in membership dues from the nation’s elderly (and some not so elderly) was so quick to sell its membership down the river on the one issue that is of the most importance to it.

The first thing you need to know to understand why the AARP caved in so quickly is that in 2009, former CEO William D. Novelli earned over $1 million in salary and deferred compensation. That same year, 17 other AARP executives pulled down in excess of $300,000 apiece. Does that sound like a group of people who have ANY idea what it might be like to be a retiree and try and make ends meet on a monthly Social Security check alone? Another little fact you need to know: in 2008, AARP earned over $770 million in income from peddling supplemental health insurance policies to its members and for paid advertisements placed in its publications (according to Wikipedia). Add that all up and a picture begins to emerge of an organization that is much more beholden to corporate America than it is to its rank and file membership.

It really should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the state of affairs in America these days. Organizations across the board, be they companies, banks, unions, churches or government agencies have become calcified and protective of the perquisites enjoyed by insiders at the expense of all else, including and especially the common good.

AARP’s own history shows the typical trajectory for such American institutions. Founded back in 1958, its original mission statement declared it to be: “a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for people age 50 and over…dedicated to enhancing quality of life for all as we age." Note the non-profit portion of that proclamation—not exactly consistent with an organization employing a millionaire CEO and raking in hundreds of millions from corporate America.

In 1999, in the typically idiotic manner of corporate America that has changed, for example, the name of the fast food chain formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken to just KFC, AARP similarly consolidated its handle to just its initials, presumably dropping the word Retired from its name in an effort to discourage indecorous commentators like yours truly from pointing out that the organization is now happy to start sucking membership dues from anyone who turns 50 and is thus presumably still many years away from retirement.

More importantly, it has always been understood that the primary purpose of the approximately $23 million AARP spends on lobbying every year is to protect Social Security benefits. Indeed, as recently as 2005, the organization’s lobbying was a key to helping defeat President Bush’s half-baked privatization plan. In more recent times, however, it has gone AWOL on its membership; by not forcefully opposing the freeze on annual cost of living increases, by not opposing the Social Security tax cut and now with this move—all while continuing to happily take those annual membership dues from the suckers who still believe AARP is looking out for their best interests.

I assume if you’re reading this blog you have likely accepted the fact that Social Security is ultimately doomed. The only question is how long will it be before the Grim Reaper swings his scythe and the monthly EFT payments stop coming. If you know that then there is really no point in sending your membership dues to an organization that is far more interested in maintaining the pay and perquisites of its senior leadership than it is fighting on your behalf. Let the other suckers foot the bill for the AARP’s fraudulent lobbying efforts. In the long run, the result is going to be the same anyway.


  1. Good post, Bill. I dropped AARP back when they supported the medicare drug bill (or as I like to call it, the bail out big pharma bill)back during the Bush administration. I don't understand why any senior would think AARP is working on their behalf.

  2. Sadly, they are not alone. So many people think so many institutions that are coasting on their long-standing reputations are working for them rather than just to maintain the status quo. I've given up trying to figure out how to get through to them.